I’m often asked questions about my book. Things like:
- What’s it about? (Family, music, dreams)
- How long did it take to write? (Six years)
- What inspired it? (Many things—life, things I’m interested in, family stories)
- What made you want to write a book? (I wanted to leave something of myself behind when I die)
Writers tend to ask different sorts of questions, more about the writing:
- Do you have a writing background? (No)
- Have you always wanted to write? (No)
- Did you plan your novel out beforehand? (No, I’m a total pantser and was still pantsing even in the copy edits)
- How did you learn to write? (Make yourself comfortable because the answer to this one takes a while …)
I love being asked about writing and my book, and I’m flattered that people are curious. So, I thought I’d answer some of these questions in a little series—who knows, it might become a bigger series!—called ‘How to write a book’.
Before I start, I want you to know that I find it hard to give advice. I tend to say what worked for me in the hope that someone might identify and find it helpful. But what worked for me, may not work for you. I’ll also add the caveat that I’ve written one book, and while I learnt a lot writing that book, my experience is limited to a single book. I know, too, that talking about writing is a bit like talking about parenting—everyone does it differently, everyone has an opinion, and everyone’s doing their best. I also believe that, like with parenting, most of the learning of writing is done on the job.
So, here is the first of my series on how to write a book (with bonus swan photos):
HOW TO WRITE A BOOK #1:
Give Yourself Permission to be a Learner
When I enrolled in my first ever writing course, an online one based in the USA, I called myself ‘Learner Writer’. I felt that labelling myself a learner gave me permission to have gaps in my knowledge, to ask questions and to take time to learn the craft. Perhaps even more importantly, it allowed me to make mistakes, to write something with grammar or punctuation errors, or that was a bit OTT, or that didn’t quite hit the mark.
This is what I told myself, but it wasn’t as easy as I’ve made it sound. I still felt embarrassed by my errors and frustrated when the vision of my story in my head didn’t translate onto the page. I was annoyed at myself when I couldn’t say all that I wanted to, and I compared my stumbling sentences to the majestic phrases of others. I think, too, that because I was an adult and had a university degree, I held myself to a higher standard and was extra harsh on myself.
It was hard to give myself leeway. Yet, how was I to learn if I didn’t have a go? If I wasn’t prepared to err? If I didn’t make attempts at writing that fell flat or missed the mark? If I didn’t overstep the boundary sometimes? If I didn’t take a risk and bare my soul, or experiment and push myself?
I was 43 years old when I first started writing. I had no qualifications in English, or indeed in any area of the arts at all. I still don’t. Back in 2010, I hadn’t written a story since high school, and there had been nearly two decades of my life during which I’d barely read anything other than a medical text or newspaper. Initially, I kept the fact that I was writing a secret—I didn’t even show my words to my husband. They were too revealing, too fragile.
It took a couple of years until I found the courage to tell the world I wanted to write a novel, and when I did, I felt vulnerable and exposed, as if I’d stripped off naked in public. I worried that people would laugh at me and my stupid pipe dream. I cringed every time I saw the meme where people boast that they judge others based on their punctuation and grammar, because I thought they were rolling their eyes at me and having a giggle at my expense.
There were times I wondered what the hell I was doing trying to learn something new. Why didn’t I stay where I felt secure, in the profession I knew and in which I had expertise? Why was I starting out all over again?
To get through this period, I did a lot of self-talk. I told myself things like:
So what if you make a mistake? No one will die.
It doesn’t have to be perfect.
You don’t have to know everything.
You are doing something courageous and brave.
Ignore the naysayers and the judgers. Don’t listen to them. Listen to kind people, the ones who are encouraging, who are supportive, who are telling you not to give up.
You are not being foolish.
I repeated these and similar phrases over and over, and tried not to worry if someone thought my writing was stupid, or if they judged me because I’d written something badly or got something wrong.
The funny thing is, the negative people seemed to drift away after a while—perhaps they saw their words weren’t having any effect, or perhaps it was too hard for them to watch someone doing what they secretly wanted to do themselves.
Hidden in the archives of this blog are some of my early posts. I no longer feel embarrassed when I re-read them—there are grammar and punctuation errors, the wording is clumsy and I wrote about some silly topics. I leave those pieces up because they remind me that I’ve improved and they show my development as a writer. Besides, there are some that I’m proud of, despite the misplaced punctuation!
No, it’s not easy to don those ‘L’ plates, but it’s well worth it.
I hope this post was useful—please let me know what you think. I’ve got a few posts like this up my sleeves, but feel free to ask me questions or suggest topics you’d like me to write about—anything to do with writing a novel or writing in general.
You can let me know in the comments below or via Facebook, or contact me privately here if you want.